Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Am Legend

I Am Legend
by Richard Matheson
read: 2011
Guardian 1000 Novels

Happy Halloween!  I've spent a good portion of this month catching up the AMC series The Walking Dead.    The Walking Dead, like virtually everything in the zombie survival genre, owes a debt to I Am Legend, Richard Matheson's 1954 story of Richard Neville, the last man on earth after some strange disease turns the rest of the world's population into vampires.  Neville walks around by day, gathering supplies and killing vampires, and holes up in his house by night, hoping his preparations make him safe from the undead horde.  If that sounds like the plot of a George Romero movie, that's no surprise; according to Romero, I Am Legend helped inspire Night of the Living Dead.  That said, I Am Legend is not a great book.  It's not a bad read, but Neville isn't a compelling character, and of course we spend a lot of time with him since there's no one else.  I'm not going to recommend it, but if you want to see where the zombie apocalypse craze started, go ahead and read I Am Legend.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

White Teeth

White Teeth
by Zadie Smith
read: circa 2004
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 Novels, James Tait Black Memorial Prize

White Teeth is an example of a modern "identity plot" novel.  The characters are all from different ethnic and religious backgrounds and upbringings - white British, Jamaican Jehovah's Witness, Bangladeshi Islam, Jewish, and mixed race and religion - and they all seem to be trying to figure out how they fit in to modern English society.  It's almost an identity novel for England itself.  What is England in this world where being British can mean so many different things?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior
by Maxine Hong Kingston
read: 2012

The Woman Warrior is the ninth book for Yale Professor Amy Hungerford's class on the American Novel Since 1945, and Professor Hungerford uses it as an example of what she calls "the identity plot": basically, the main character, a member of a minority of some sort, does not identify with the minority nor with the larger majority.  The Woman Warrior is clearly an example of this; the narrator (Maxine Hong Kingston, presumably, as the book is classified as non-fiction) feels that as a Chinese-American, she can neither fully endorse the superstitious, sexist Chinese culture, nor entirely divorce herself from it.  She spends the first part of the book describing how her aunt was shamed into suicide and infanticide by her village because she committed adultery, then she journeys into an extended fantasy where she is trained as warrior and seclusion and comes back to rescue her village (disguising her gender to do so).  Ultimately, Kingston comes to an understanding that her identity will always incorporate elements of Chinese culture and the America she was born in.

Of the other books Hungerford prescribed for the class, Black Boy and The Bluest Eye are obviously in this vein.  She suggests you could make arguments for the other books - On the Road, Lolita, Franny and Zooey, Wise Blood, Lost in the Funhouse, The Crying of Lot 49 - and I think depending on how you define "minority, it's possible, though I'd say Lolita and The Crying of Lot 49 are less obviously about self-discovery and self-definition.  What about the other (non-genre) post-World War II novels I've reviewed on this blog?

The French Lieutenant's Woman - you could make an interesting argument for this one, as the titular woman is oppressed by larger society because of her sex, but the narrative thrust isn't really her quest for identity.  We're never really allowed in Sarah's head..
All the King's Men - self-identity does seem important, but I have a hard time finding a minority group that Burden belongs to.  Maybe it's whether he belongs with the morally righteous (as symbolized by Adam Stanton) or the amorally pragmatic (as symbolized by Willie Stark).
Infinite Jest - I think you can, particularly with Don Gately and finding an identity in the world as an ex-addict.  Hal is also looking for himself in some fashion, though the resolution of his story is less clear.
Falconer - Again, I think there's a decent argument, with Farragut trying to figure out his life as a convict and drug addict and how he relates to the world at large.
Catch-22, Slaugherhouse Five, Gravity's Rainbow - I would say no; I think the backdrop of the war makes the kind of solemn self-reflection on personal identity a bit silly.
The Catcher in the Rye - Yes, probably.
Tinkers - Maybe.  Howard Crosby has to carve out a life despite epilepsy (though there's no real society he's part of).
Go Tell It on the Mountain - Yes
Never Let Me Go - Maybe.  Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are clearly part of a minority group, but the schism with larger society is so complete that it seems impossible to carve out an identity.
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - I'd say yes.
Midnight's Children - Yes, probably on a few levels.  Saleem is finding an identity as a child of midnight, just as India is finding an identity in the world.
The Bell Jar - I think so.  Esther struggles with the expectations others have of young urban women and tries to find an identity in that society.
The Moviegoer - The quest for identity and meaning is key, but what is the minority group Binx belongs to?
Beloved - Yes
Atonement - Probably not
A Dance to the Music of Time - Probably not
Deliverance - Maybe, but if so it's subservient to "man vs. nature" and "man vs. man" plot structures
The Adventures of Augie March - Concerned with identity, certainly.  Augie's minority group is a little less clear; maybe poor Americans?
A House for Mr Biswas - I think so, with Mohun trying to find himself as an outsider in the Tulsis.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


by William Gibson
read: 2011
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 Novels, Nebula AwardHugo Award, Philip K. Dick Award

A year after reading Neuromancer, I have a hard time remembering what happened in it versus what happened in Snow Crash, another book I read about the same time that also presaged a lot of the developments of the Internet.  Reading the plot summary on Wikipedia (which contains spoilers), I realize there are a hell of a lot of twists and turns that I don't really remember.

The novel brings to mind movies, too: Wikipedia references Escape from New York and Blade Runner but it also reminds me of Inception, which of course came afterwards.  The gritty, futuristic feel is reminiscent of those earlier works.  I think the plot structure of Inception with the "no one knows who anyone is really working for or what they're trying to do" paranoia owes something to Gibson.  

Saturday, October 6, 2012

East of Eden

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
read: circa 1995
Guardian 1000 Novels

I had to read East of Eden for summer reading before my sophomore year of high school.  This passage stuck with me:
"... A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last.  The strange and the foreign is not interesting - only the deeply personal and familiar."
Samuel said, "Apply that to the Cain-Abel story."
And Adam said, "I didn't kill my brother -" Suddenly he stopped and his mind went reeling back in time.
 "I think I can," Lee answered Samuel.  "I think it is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody's story.  I think it is the symbol story of the human soul."
I didn't really understand that - the idea that the Cain-Abel story is universal - at the time.  Looking back, it's a powerful statement, but I don't think it's true. Maybe if I had a brother, I might think it was true.  And the larger sentiment here - that only familiar stories resonate - I think isn't quite true, either.  I'd say only the familiar parts of stories resonate, or the parts that can touch on familiar feelings.  Ultimately, we are always piecing together a story out of our own experiences and our own feelings.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Cairo Trilogy

The Cairo Trilogy
by Naghib Mahfouz
read: circa 1997
Guardian 1000 Novels

I remember that towards the end of my junior year of high school, we got our summer reading assignments. Senior year was world literature.  We had a couple mandatory books and then could choose two books by any author on a list of about 25.  The problem was that I'd only heard of one or two of them!  But armed with some pluck, I did a moderate amount of research (this was pre-Wikipedia and I might have had to use actual books), learning a few facts about the writing of each author, his nation of origin, and a couple of his best-known works.  I think I even typed up my research for the rest of the class.  Man, was I ever cool in high school.  I ultimately decided that Egyptian novelist Naghib Mahfouz, the man who put the Arabic novel on the map, was the most obscure and pretentious name on the list, so I grabbed the first two volumes in the Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk and Palace of Desire.

Supposedly after writing The Cairo Trilogy, Mahfouz decided he had done all he could with the realistic novel genre and moved on to other novel styles.  I don't know if that's true or if Mahfouz's self-assessment is accurate, but these are great books and I enjoyed them.  I was a typical high school nerd who thought too much and was too much of a wuss to ask any ladies out, so I really identified with the overly-introspective, too-analytical Kamal, who I thought of as a kindred spirit across the barriers of time, oceans, language, and reality.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Adventures of Augie March

The Adventures of Augie March
by Saul Bellow
read: 2010
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #81, Guardian 1000 Novels, National Book Award

When I started the Time 100 greatest novels list, The Adventures of Augie March is the first book I picked up.  Mostly because the list on their website is alphabetized by title.  Which is kinda weird.

Like the protagonist of A House for Mr. Biswas, the titular Augie March is not a remarkable figure on the face of things, nor an obviously heroic one.  His adventures are interesting and often amusing, as he holds a series of jobs, nearly gets adopted by a rich couple, and falls in love and travels to Mexico to train eagles.  But they don't really follow a narrative arc, and it's hard to discern what lessons we are meant to infer from Augie's experiences.  This lack of clear message makes the book feel honest, and Augie's optimism in the face of uncertainty feels real and refreshing.